What happens to the wreckage after an airplane accident? Who gets access to it? What does the aviation accident attorney need to do to make sure it is properly preserved?
Here’s what happens:
1. The National Transportation Safety Board Secures the Wreckage on Site. The wreckage usually remains at the site of the aircraft accident until the National Transportation Safety Board arrives. The Board investigator immediately secures the wreckage and makes sure no one tampers with it. The Board investigator inspects, documents, and photographs the wreck.
2. The Wreckage is Removed to a Secure Location. After the Board investigator has inspected the wreckage on site, it asks a salvage company to remove it to a secure location. The salvage company usually cuts the aircraft up, loads it on a truck and carts it away. Wreckages from northern California airplane accidents often end up at a facility called Plain Parts in Pleasant Grove near Sacramento. Wreckages from southern California accidents often end up at Aircraft Recovery Services in Pearblossom, California. Though the wreckage is now in the hands of a private salvage company, it is still considered to be in the custody of the NTSB. The salvage yard operators are supposed to allow no one access to the wreckage without the NTSB’s permission.
3. The NTSB Goes to the Storage Facility. The NTSB visits the storage facility with the other parties whom the NTSB has invited to participate in the accident investigation. (As discussed here, the NTSB often invites the aircraft and engine manufacturer to participate in the investigation. The NTSB never invites the victim or the victim’s representatives. In fact, the NTSB won’t even allow the victim or his representatives access to the wreckage.) The NTSB and the invited parties conduct a more detailed inspection of the parts, and they may disassemble the engine. They may send parts out for testing.
4. The Wreckage is "Released" to the Owner. When the NTSB is done with its various inspections, it "releases" the wreckage to the owner. By now, legal title to the aircraft has often changed from its original owner to the insurance company that paid for the loss of the aircraft. As far as the NTSB is concerned, the owner — whether it’s the insurance company or the original owner — is now free to do with the wreckage what it wants, including scrapping it or selling it.
Of course, the aircraft wreckage is important evidence. Therefore, before the NTSB releases the wreckage, the aviation attorney must take whatever steps are necessary to make sure the wreck is preserved. The victim’s attorney needs to determine who the aircraft wreckage’s owner is, and he must obtain the owner’s written agreement to keep the wreck secure once the NTSB releases it. If the owner refuses, or threatens to destroy the wreck, the attorney may need to seek a court order.